The Mother Sauces of Italian Cooking

October 14, 2021

The tomato entered Italy in the 16th century by way of South America and was regarded by Italians with great suspicion, many believing it to be poisonous. Not until the 19th century did the tomato get any culinary notice when it came to define southern Italian cuisine so much so that one wonders how Italy ever managed without it! 

The word for tomato is pomodoro, meaning golden apple because some of the earliest types were yellow, not red. Over time, tomatoes morphed into red, pink, purple and brown hues. But when talking about sauce tomatoes, the choice is clear. 

Plum tomatoes, elongated in shape, pulpy with few seeds, thick skinned and sweet tasting, are the best choice for tomato sauce. Italy boasts at least 320 varieties of tomatoes grown primarily in Sicily, Campania, Puglia, Lazio and the Veneto regions. But the most popular tomato is the San Marzano plum tomato named for where it grows in San Marzano, in the province of Salerno in the region of Campania.

It is the volcanic rich soil of nearby Mount Vesuvius and the hot climate that provides the perfect formula for the taste of this particular tomato. San Marzano tomatoes carry the coveted DOP (denominazione origine protetta) designation on the can guaranteeing that the product is grown and packed in San Marzano.

Italy also has a surprising number of regional sauces, some liquid like classic tomato sauce of southern Italy or the bagna cauda (hot fish sauce) from Piedmont in northern Italy and some denser sauces like walnut and parsley sauce. From north to south, sauces are as varied as the cooks who create them. In fact a simple tomato sauce can be made in as little ten minutes!

Surprisingly, there is no formalized way to make Italian sauces. Salsa, the Italian word for sauce, comes from sale, meaning salt. One of the first recorded sauces was garum (1 AD), literally a stinky fish sauce composed of anchovies or sardines and salt that was left to marinate for many days resulting in a pungent liquid called garum used on meats, fish and vegetables. 

There are however some sauces that can be considered mother sauces because they are used so frequently and are popular throughout Italy.

Bescimella, a creamy white sauce made from flour, butter, milk and spices like nutmeg, originated in Italy and found its way to French kitchens during the reign of Louis XIV. Since then, the sauce has undergone much tinkering by cooks, infusing the rich creamy and velvety sauce with other flavors like wine, peppercorns and onions. One of its classic uses is in lasagne verdi alla Bolognese as well as over fish, vegetables and gnocchi.

The region of Liguria is famous for its pesto sauce owing to the abundance of basil. Pesto Sauce is made from fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts or walnuts (or a combination of both), extra virgin olive oil and grains of coarse salt.

Ever wonder what the difference is between a ragu’ sauce and tomato sauce? You might think that they are one and the same but there are many differences.  The most famous are Bolognese and Neapolitan ragú but almost every region makes a version.  

A Bolognese ragú is made with ground beef, pork and veal and is slow cooked with onions, carrots and celery flavored with pancetta for about 45 minutes. Some cooks will tell you that there are no tomato es in a Bolognese ragú, while others will include it. This ragú is always the sauce for tagliatelle pasta. 

Neapolitan ragú on the other hand, has onions and chucks of beef, spareribs, pork chops or other meats on the bone that cook with plum tomatoes for several hours until tender. This is where it gets the name Sunday sauce, because while you were praying diligently in church, the sauce simmered away. The sauce was used to dress the pasta, the first course, and then the meat was served as a second course. Sauces like this vary from region to region. It is interesting to note that this sauce is often called gravy here but it will always be known as la salsa to Italians

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